IAN SMITH

Daybreak
Emanem 4059

Think of most memorable examples of British improvising over the past three decades and the front line sound that comes first to the inner ear is that of the sonic advances made by saxophonists such as Evan Parker, John Butcher and Paul Dunmall.

Aiming to redress the balance, Dublin-born Ian Smith has recorded this skillful example of BritImprov at London’s Red Rose club without a reed in sight. Besides Smith on trumpet and flugelhorn, the CD features two exceptional young brass boosters — trombonist Gail Brand and tubaist Oren Marshall — as well as two veteran improvisers, guitarist Derek Bailey and Veryan Weston, playing a so-called early music chamber organ.

Mixing and matching the five musicians on the CD’s 14 tracks, this is no vanity project for Smith — he and the other horns don’t even play on two selections. But with the luck of the Irish, he’s certainly ended up with an exceptional report on the state of British brass finesse in the 21st Century.

Smith has played on hip hop and classical sessions as well as with the London Improvisers Orchestra, as has Brand, who is also a member of bassist Simon H. Fell’s quintet and the Lunge quartet. Those two, plus Marshall, a tubaist usually employed in classical circles, and who impressively held his own on a trio disc with Butcher and Bailey make up The Temporary Brass Trio. In addition, over time, Marshall has developed individual improvisation techniques including deconstructing his instrument with an assortment of hooters and whistles in place of valves.

Judging from the earth shaking blasts that occur from time to time, his axe doesn’t seem to be deconstructed here, but he may be the party tooting what sounds like a penny whistle on “Don't even think about it” and “Windsurfing”.

With the ensembles ranging from duos to quintets, everyone gets to strut his or her stuff. Especially impressive is “Air Apparent” where Weston’s keyboard continuo gives the brass trio a platform on which they can exhibit how musical the sound of breath being forced through mouthpieces and valves can be. Slow moving, “Hidden”, the only brass trio number, shows the three sounding each of their respective instrument’s pitches and then altering them. It’s probably Brand, though, who figuratively converts her sackbut to an alp horn part of the way through.

With only Bailey on-side, Smith has enough room to feature himself on “Coffee” and he responds by exploring all of his instrument’s registers, producing dog growls, fanfares, miniscule mouthpiece squeaks and tones so muted they sound as if they come not from inside his horn, but from within his throat. Meanwhile the imperturbable guitarist blithely strums away. Smith passes that baptism by fire nicely and later on proves that he can come up with enough ideas to take Butcher’s place in an echo of the trio disc Bailey and Marshall recorded with the saxophonist.

However as a quintet or quartet with Weston, it often seems as if it’s the organist who must go mighty-Wurlitzer and take up all the sonic space he can to prop up the horns and get them to start spitting out notable improvisations. With a sonority that skates from that of a circus calliope to one resembling a primitive synthesizer, Weston sometimes makes the horns speed up and chase one another like a litter of cats. They differentiate themselves with reverberating blats from the tuba, quicksilver melodies from the trumpet and choked half-valve effects from the trombone.

Besides the apparent inability of the brass to horn in on the improvisations of their elders, the disc has other weaknesses. Most obvious is that despite the song titles, there seems to be an absolute lack of levity on the session, Maybe Smith was so concerned with making a brass statement that he neglected the lighter part of the equation. No blarney-sprouting stage Irishman he. Coupled with this, is that none of the brassfolk displays the sort of full-fledged self-sufficient identity yet that Brand, for one, has shown on other sessions. They’re good players, of course, but no style or phrase defines them completely. Contrast this with Bailey. From the first note he sounds on “There We Are” you know exactly who is playing that guitar.

Still, considering that the 71-year-old plectrumist has had an entire lifetime to create himself and that the three horn players are young enough to be his children, their labors here augur well for their future. If all keep theorizing and studying, while playing and recording at this high level, we’ll soon be able to note their individualities as easily as we hear Bailey’s.

DAYBREAK, as the title suggests is strong illumination towards that goal.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Daybreak 2. Falange, falanginha, falangeta# 3. Carpe dentum*# 4. There We Are*^# 5. Coffee^ 6. Blás*# 7. Function of the organ* 8. Don't even think about it*^# 9. Closely Linked^# 10. Air Apparent*# 11. Sometimes*^ 12. Hidden# 13. Windsurfing*^# 14. Go On^

Personnel: Ian Smith [all tracks but 7 & 11] (flugelhorn, trumpet); Gail Brand (trombone)#; Oren Marshall [all tracks but 5, 7 & 10] (tuba); Veryan Weston (chamber organ)*; Derek Bailey (guitar)^